Philadelphia: A First Step toward a Better Bus Network

Our work on the bus network design for Philadelphia has finally produced a report!  The transit agency, SEPTA, hired us a year ago to study the city’s bus network (separate from suburban services) and identify what issues a network design might address.

Jason Laughlin at the Philadelphia Inquirer has a good story here.  Plan Philly, a project of NPR station WHYY, has a story here.

Our report makes no recommendations.  We studied the network in great detail, and then made statements that all implicitly start with if.  We present options, show their consequences, and invite the community to think about the trade-offs these options imply.

If you wanted a network that increased where people can go in a given amount of time, and thus made transit useful for more purposes, you would consider these possibilities:

  • Be open to changing the network to some degree, even though this would change the travel patterns that existing riders are used to. Are the benefits worth the need for some riders to adjust to new travel patterns?
  • Widen stop spacing from about 500 ft (150m) to at least 1000 feet. European stop spacing is often well above 1500 ft (450m). Philadelphia’s bus stops are unusually close together even by US standards.  This means slower service.
  • Be willing to ask some people to change buses who now have a direct ride, often in cases where their total trip would be faster because they would wait less.(Does that sound wrong?  It did to me at first.  It’s explained here.)

The next step that we recommend is to encourage some public conversation about these and other choices, before a recommended network is designed.  Our work has ended on this project, but we certainly hope to be involved in the future.  Meanwhile, read the report!

17 Responses to Philadelphia: A First Step toward a Better Bus Network

  1. Ben G June 22, 2018 at 8:19 am #

    I could only wish for 500-foot stop spacing here in Duluth Minnesota. Most of the stops are 400 ft apart (sometimes less!), and generally only longer than that if there’s nothing in between (like farmland). It’s maddening.

  2. Nick June 22, 2018 at 11:03 am #

    We aim for spacing between 750 and 1320 feet here in Baltimore. However, spacing can be closer if doing so provides more better access to social services (hospitals/clinics, senior centers, etc) or to facilitate transfers.

    It’s tough sometimes due to the public push back at removal or relocation of ‘their’ bus stop. But we’re trying.

    • asdf2 June 23, 2018 at 5:10 pm #

      I never understand why social services owned by the city get special privileges with regards to bus stop placement that privately owned stores and office buildings do not. What percentage of bus trips are really going to or from government-operated social services? If bus trips even vaguely resemble overall trips, the answer would be “tiny”. Perhaps government officials responsible for planning bus route tend to think in terms of social services out simply of bias – because they or their organization also run the social services, so it’s on the planners’ minds.

      • Jason June 24, 2018 at 9:20 pm #

        My gut reaction to that is to say that it reveals a lot about who they imagine is and isn’t riding the bus.

        • Bob June 26, 2018 at 9:26 am #

          For many small town and rural systems, it may not be “imagining” who is and isn’t riding, but rather responding to the reality of who uses the service. Providing a service for those in need isn’t saying anything negative about their worth. Pretending a service isn’t primarily used by those with fewer resources isn’t noble, and it makes it harder to make that service maximally useful to those who use/need it. I am a pro-transit person. However, pretending it isn’t an inferior good (economic definition) in most small cities, towns, and rural areas in the US isn’t helpful. Most people prefer cars when they have a choice.

          None of this devalues the worth of the people in either category, and nobody should imply anything negative about their inherent worth in that discussion. Don’t read that into my statement.

          • asdf2 June 29, 2018 at 7:59 pm #

            Whether you’re middle class or poor, the most frequent trips people make are home to work, home to grocery store, and (for parents) home to kid’s school. These are places were people go nearly every day, or at least multiple times a week. While a few people with chronic conditions do need to go to medical appointments multiple times a week, such people are a tiny minority. And the percentage of all trips – even all trips by people with less than 30% of the median income – to government social services is also tiny. Even people who work for minimum wage still have to get to work, and still have to eat. These trips are the majority of most of these people’s trips.

            What I think might be happening in rural areas is there’s an implicit assumption that anybody that doesn’t have their own car has family that is able to drive them around on evenings or weekends, but on weekdays, this family member probably has to work, so, without the bus, such people would be left stranded during those times. And, since getting to work requires a car, such people are probably retired, and have all day to get around (it’s either sit on the bus or sit at home, hence the emphasis of accessibility and coverage over attractiveness to the general population and speed of service). Hence, the emphasis on stuff like medical appointments or visits to social services which are both 1) essential (not being able to get there could have serious consequences) 2) must be done in the middle of a weekday (cannot be rescheduled to an evening/weekend when family driver is available because the facilities are not open during those times).

            The problem, of course, is these assumptions tend to result in service that is less attractive to everyone else. Sometimes, it’s not even routes. Marketing which makes me (a young, able-bodied) person feel guilty for using a service that’s supposed to be primarily for the elderly and disabled isn’t exactly encouraging me to ride the system.

      • el_slapper June 25, 2018 at 1:46 am #

        Well, if you read Nick in detail, he speaks about “hospitals/clinics” and “senior centers”. Which means there you are doing a political choice to help people who can walk less still use the service.

        You are not optimizing the service in general, you are optimizing it for people who can’t walk much and need to reach those places anyways. It’s a kind of cheaper version of shuttle for elder/disabled.

        It may have smelly assumptions, but those smelly assumptions do not prevent the system to work anyways. That’s the old coverage/ridership issue, which is more a political decision than a purely efficiency decision. You sacrifice some of the efficiency for better serving a specific demographics that need it.

        My wife gave birth recently. We did choose the clinic that had a tramway stop just nearby, just in case she would need to go alone had I not been available to drive her(ended up with a night drive in 8 inches of snow in a city where snow never falls, but that’s another story). Of course, most people going there by tram don’t go for the clinic. But still, for the few who need, it can be a life saver when emergency vehicles are not available.

        So I do appreciate that the network could be more optimized, and my tax money better used, and still like the configuration that allows to reach those services easier.

      • Alon Levy June 26, 2018 at 12:46 am #

        Because they are major destinations that generate a lot of trips for both workers and patients. You can see where the hospitals are on a job density map because so many people work there across all income categories, and in some cases it’s worthwhile even to detour an entire bus route to serve such big centers.

        • Charles Krueger June 27, 2018 at 7:03 am #

          One hospital detour here in Philly that is clearly NOT worthwhile is the bus 42 detour in West Philly (between 33/34 and 38th Streets).

      • Jack June 26, 2018 at 7:00 am #


        In our area, we sometimes do this for accessibility reasons. For example, there are two locations commonly used by individuals with disabilities that are about 300 feet apart. There are no sidewalks, it’s a fast moving road, and it would be unsafe for an individual in a wheelchair to navigate along that road. However, there is a safe place for a bus stop at both entrances that goes right back to these locations. If we just put a stop at one or the other, the folks at the other would likely end up on the ADA service at much higher cost. So, frustrating as it is, why not put a stop at both and be much more cost effective and accessible friendly? Realistically, we rarely stop at both on the same run; usually one or the other on a particular run, so it doesn’t slow the service down very much. Obviously the better choice would be to have an accessible friendly pedestrian environment, but that’s beyond our control. It’s not bias about who is riding… it’s responding to the reality of who our customers are, the limitations of the region, and the need to control costs.

        • Jack June 26, 2018 at 7:01 am #

          I’ll add that this isn’t exactly responding to your thought, because neither of these are public social services. One is a private business, and the other is the entrance to a large housing development.

  3. Sick Transit June 25, 2018 at 2:22 pm #

    I’m not holding my breath. Transit advocates have been recommending a number of these changes for years – in some cases, decades – with little response from SEPTA. in particular:

    – the agency has refused to do anything about reducing or eliminating its transfer charges despite internal data demonstrating that the added cost distorts rider behavior and leads to inefficient use of buses that should serve as feeders to the subway lines. In fact, SEPTA recently announced plans to _increase_ the cost of transfers for riders who don’t have an electronic farecard.

    – headways on some rail lines are as long as an hour, even on weekdays. One light-rail line that used to operate at 15 or 20 minute intervals has been reduced to every 30 … but that service is provided by two coupled cars AND two operators on each trip so there’s no cost saving, just a reduction in convenience for riders.

    The report itself offers the illogical suggestion that one streetcar line be converted to bus service solely because its path is sometimes blocked by double-parked vehicles. The idea that transit options should be dictated by drivers who flout basic traffic laws is absurd on its surface and flies in the face of modern planning. Numerous other cities are spending major sums to rebuild long-abandoned streetcar lines and control auto traffic; one has to wonder about the motives behind a proposal to scrap infrastructure that already exists and effectively throw away the taxpayers’ investment.

    • SouthJerseyOne June 27, 2018 at 3:12 am #

      Michael, I’ll let Mr. Walker and SEPTA respond for themselves, but I’m sure you know the Route 15 problem is as much about the failure of the City of Philadelphia to develop consensus for, and devoting resources to, traffic enforcement and setting priorities for smooth operation of the service. IMHO, the study suggestion for Route 15 conversion is, in no small part, a reflection of the institutional inertia of City government.

      I agree that I wouldn’t suggest converting Route 15 back to bus, but I also would never have re-instated streetcar service in the 1990’s without a substantial investment in infrastructure built to Light Rail standards (i.e. like the Route 56 dedicated median now rotting unused in the center of Erie Avenue). Separation from traffic is what provides rail with a modal advantage. Route 15 should leverage that advantage; currently it (for the most part) does not because the choke points wipe out the benefit. SEPTA should improve, not remove, the service.

      • Ace September 11, 2018 at 6:57 pm #

        Hear hear.

        The report also fails to account for the fact that SEPTA has spent millions repairing Route 15 track over the past few years. Abandonment simply to potentially extend the west end to 69th Street would be grossly irresponsible. Reuse of currently buried/paved-over (but present, precluding the need for utility relocation) former Route 31 track westward along Haverford,67th & Lansdowne gets you pretty close anyway and new track along Lansdowne/Victory to the terminal is likely viable. Upgrade of the right-of-way from Frankford to Aramingo has much potential to be physically separated cheaply with curbing like Toronto did. The fact that track was not separated from traffic in an ENTIRELY NEW alignment of Richmond Street from the Aramingo interchange northward is shameful.

        If PennDOT, the city and SEPTA had any sort of long-term vision in using best practices to work around the route’s shortcomings, most of the route east of Broad would be a beautiful operation. Strict parking enforcement (which itself makes money) would take care of most of the rest of the issues.

    • Jess August 8, 2018 at 3:39 pm #

      As of the 1st of August, transfers are no longer possible without a Key card on SEPTA. The Key card costs $5 to buy alone before you load anything onto it. This in a city with a route system where transfers are a necessity not just to get to the city centre but to get from one neighbourhood to another (think NW Philly to the NE). We have two and a half subway/underground services here, with the rest of the system being almost exclusively buses. Due to the lack of rail in a number of areas (including parts of Broad Street), bus riding will almost certainly have to happen to get virtually anywhere in Philly. Charging for transfers and having a limited number or rides on a daily/weekly/monthly pass just ass salt into the wound. Not to mention the weekly/monthly pass are fixed to Mon–Sun & the calendar month instead of any 7-or-30-day period. I’ve heard of people typing up spreadsheets just to determine the cheapest way to get around the city during the upcoming week or month. Having the current fare policies doesn’t encourage spontaneous use like is often mentioned on this blog. It also hurts irregular users like seasonal workers who may use the system heavily for a few months then has off till say the middle of a future month.

  4. Shelly June 26, 2018 at 6:31 pm #

    Be open to changing the network to some degree, even though this would change the travel patterns that existing riders are used to. I agree, if it’s for the common good, then go on.

  5. mb July 3, 2018 at 5:33 am #

    I actually am very shocked at the lack of existing frequent service operating in the evening in Philly.
    Was not expecting SEPTA to be that bad.